Needed: More Learning in Context

trade-style learning

We often compare academic classroom learning against trade-style or on-the-job training. Most people consider classroom learning as more rigorous, more in-depth, and “higher”. Why do you think this is? Is it based on fact? Somehow, we perceive that “training” is just easier than “education.” It is more focused, it is specific to the job, and it doesn’t involve higher-order thinking.

But there is an alternative explanation that is rarely considered. Maybe on-the-job and trade-style learning is “easier” because our brains just learn better that way. What we perceive as easy, is really just better grasping of the learning into our memory structure.  This means that if we remove learning from the classroom and move it to a location — in context — of what we are learning, the learning will be less difficult.

Apprenticeship-style learning is learning in context. You can see the relevance of what you are learning, while you are learning it. After a while, you begin to see the big picture. You start to understand the big concepts in an area, after you have “seen” them over and over again, and you can apply them to new and unique situations. That is really what it means to be an expert in a field. You know the major concepts cold.

Wouldn’t it be nice to take a similar approach within education — and especially higher education. Our approach to higher education is to introduce the abstract concepts first. You go to college to learn the important concepts in a field — Supply vs. Demand, for example. Then you attempt to apply these abstract concepts within the real-world. This is a difficult process, and it can take many years to do so. It is also the reason that few people can go right from college to the workforce. They require an internship. They require “experience” in their field. This path to expertise can be just as difficult, or more so, than for those who learned the skills first and then progressed to understand the abstract concepts later.

One-way, or course, to learn in context is to give credit for working experiences, or independent or group projects that involve applying what’s learned to the real-world. But we haven’t done enough of this, and the reason is again, it is perceived as less difficult, less rigorous than if we did the work in a classroom. The problem with this bias is that if we need to get more people through higher education, we will need to find ways to make the learning “easier”. Who knows, we may be able to get many people to learn complex concepts if they are introduced in a contextual way first. It is something that needs to be explored as we move into our knowledge-based economy.

If we take more learning out of the classroom, and apply it to real-world scenarios, it can provide an entirely different way to learn, one that may be more enjoyable for more people. With 40% of college students dropping out, it is definitely time to explore alternatives in learning. Computers can also provide many options for contextual-style learning. You can learn through a simulation or a game, where you can see the concepts applied in real-world scenarios. Would anyone want to fly on an airplane with a pilot that only learned how to fly in a classroom? Of course not. Is flying “higher-learning.” There certainly are a lot of complex concepts related to aero-dynamics with flying, but learning how to fly is done best through practice and experience in the cockpit.

Let’s explore trade-style learning to a greater degree. It is how people have learned throughout the centuries, and it is very effective. Isn’t that what we want for all learners? — to learn effectively. By changing the model, we can change the learner’s mindset and motivation for learning. The time is now.




About chbernat

I am a technical writer and instructional designer. I have an intense interest in adult learning and instructional design principles. I greatly feel that adults need to take control of their own learning in order to advance their knowledge and skills throughout life.
This entry was posted in Adult Education, learning with technology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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